Private Property and the Common Good

What, precisely, is the function of property? And what place does it hold within the Catholic tradition? What are the limits and boundaries of property? Is private property (as we are constantly being told ad nauseam by certain Catholics) something natural, self-evident, and absolute?  The answer to these questions vary from Catholic to Catholic, and rightfully so. The question of private property specifically concerns the very legitimacy of certain notions like the welfare state, capitalism, borders, and even, I would argue, the nation-state. It is no wonder it is such a hotly contested concept! What I attempt to do in this article is provide a basis for a coherent theory of property—a theory that neither falls into rash condemnation nor enthusiastic support for private property.

Let us examine Aquinas’s theory of property. Aquinas believed that the origin of private property is human agreement. That is to say, there is no natural right to private property per se. It is a social relation. If a “right” of private property is said to exist, it can only be said to exist within the realm of positive law and civil law. Thus, private property is not contrary to the natural law, yet it also is not mandated by natural law. If private property is not mandated by natural law, then it must fall under civil law. Aquinas, by making private property contingent upon civil law (and thus, through proxy, human reason) seems to hint at the historicity of private property. Private property is historical the same way that all human laws are historical, that is to say, it is (as a legal concept) “legitimized” through a set of traditions and cultural norms. This is why St. Isidore states that “divine laws are based on nature, human law on customs.”[i]

This is not to say that private property is in any sense unlawful. Private property may function very well for, and in fact, may be good for this or that group of people. Yet, on the other hand, it may not very well suit a certain group of people to have a strict form of private property. Consequently, one can safely say that natural law itself does not prohibit a non-property-owning or non-property-based polity from existing.

With this in mind, the question which must be asked is: what is, in some sense, “before” private property (that is to say, what is “pre-political” to property, what precedes it), and what is the “end” (telos) of private property? We must also then ask again, what are the limits and boundaries of property?  We have already established that it is within the legitimate function of the state to limit, regulate, and form laws regarding private property (since it is constituted by civil law). Yet, this does not give us the answer to what is precisely the telos of private property. For Aquinas, law has two primary characteristics. Firstly, it is an aspect of law to forbid a thing.[ii] Yet, law also has the function of commanding or encouraging something. Secondly, law must also function to make men virtuous. Thus, law inevitably takes on a moral character. Regarding the essence of laws in general, then—and in this case, laws regarding property and its acquisition—laws must necessarily be directed toward the common good.[iii] Thus, it logically follows that any law or limit regarding private property must also be directed towards the common good.

Any argument for a change in property relations must be situated within the context of the common good and justice. This is why Aquinas himself justifies the division of property on the basis of the common good, that is, on the basis that a division of property benefits man as a whole, and thus helps man aim towards the good.[iv] Nonetheless, while we know that the highest good of man (which is God) does not change, we know that the objective material preconditions which allow for the best flourishing of man are subject to historical change. Thus, there is a distinction to be made regarding the common good, the mode of distribution and production, and the good that these institutions aim for.

The common good of society is that which transcends all other goods.[v] This is not to say that it devalues those goods as goods, only that it is the good in which all other goods must aim for. A common good is a good in and of itself. That is, it is a good not subject to another higher good. Thus, due to their transcendent nature, such goods are static. Hence, it would seem entirely inappropriate to say that the common good is historically contingent. Yet (and this is the second distinction), what is contingent is the way in which that good is achieved practically, that is to say, the mode in which a person or society is able to most justly provide a good under certain historical conditions.

It would seem then that wealth, power, and, consequently, private property are not goods in of themselves; they are, as Aristotle states in his Nicomachean Ethics, “merely useful and for the sake of something else.”[vi] Hence, those things exist for the sake of the common good. Thus, the first measure for any political reform would be the subjugation of private property to the common good.  
The common good is not merely an aggregate collection of private goods; it is a good separate from those goods. Yet, the common good is connected to the private good insofar as all private goods must have common good as their end. According to John Francis Nieto, “the common good cannot, however, be a whole of which private goods are the parts, except perhaps accidentally. For the common good, precisely insofar as it is one final cause, is a cause to many, but the private good bears the notion of one final cause to one only.”[vii] Thus, private goods do not participate directly in the common good, yet their final end (ideally) is the common good.

In closing, the point of this article is not so much to put forth a positive political program of Catholic social change (though this is sorely needed), but merely to construct (using Aquinas) a framework for doing so. It is absolutely apparent what happens in a society when such a framework is absent. History has shown time and time again that a society that ignores the common good is a barbaric society. Thus, this article is, on the one hand, a critique, yet on the other hand it is a call to formulate an ethic or political praxis, one that is able to provide for us the grounds for a critique. Let us hope and pray that we may be able to restore all things to Christ.

Anthony F

[i] Etymologies V. 2. 1
[ii] ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 1, s, c.
[iii] ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 2, ad. 3.
[iv] ST II-II, Q. 66, Art. 2, co.
[v] Sent. Polit. Book I, Lesson I
[vi] Nicomachean Ethics,1096a.1
[vii] John Nieto, “The Axiomatic Character of the Principle that the Common Good is Preferable to the Private Good,” in The Aquinas Review 14 (2007), pp. 109-132.